How the government chose to build two new schools in the ‘right’ place in the right pre-election time



The very suggestion the Nova Scotia government would cherry-pick new school building projects from the bottom of the priority pile simply because said schools would be built in constituencies held by Education Minister Karen Casey and Premier Stephen McNeil, is — cue the harrumphs — “a ridiculous comment to make.”

So says the minister herself. So it must be true.

Education Minister Karen Casey. Photo: Ryan Taplin / Local Xpress

Education Minister Karen Casey. Photo: Ryan Taplin / Local Xpress

To be fair, Auditor General Michael Pickup’s report last week did not specifically conclude partisan gamesmanship gamed the cabinet’s decision to ignore the facts to build two unneeded but vote-winning new schools: one in Bridgetown ($23.9 million), which is in McNeil’s home district  (surprise!), and the other in Tatamagouche ($21.6 million), which just happens to be in Casey’s backyard (golly-gosh).

But Pickup does lay down a bacon-fat-covered trail of bread crumbs that inevitably lead us inside the cabinet room where McNeil presides and Casey rules the education roost.

In the province’s 2014-15 capital plan, Pickup’s report explains, the two schools had been ranked “much lower” than other potential projects by two independent expert panels of public servants. Those committees are charged with vetting and ranking capital requests from local school boards, in large part to keep politics out of the mix.

The Stephen McNeil Memorial School in Bridgetown ranked 26th; the Karen Casey Tatamagouche Education Centre 28th.

Explains Pickup:

“The committees had concerns about these projects, including inadequate investigation of alternative options and less expensive options which had been ignored. In the cases of the new school construction projects in Bridgetown and Tatamagouche, assessments by the committees concluded that more consideration of possible renovations, or other options within the region, was needed.”

Pickup found “no evidence” in the material his auditors examined to support the government’s decisions, but he added: “We audited the work of the public service, but understand the ultimate decisions are the authority of Executive Council and we do not audit that part of the process.” One wonders wh ynot?

Karen’s non-answer when asked what evidence — aside from political geography — the government used to make its decisions is an answer in itself: “There was no suggestion that anything that was addressed by our government had anything to do with whether it was in my riding or not,” she told the CBC.

Uh… OK.

l0390So we are left to our imaginations to figure out how they came to their un-ridiculous conclusion. Perhaps McNeil and Casey wrote the names of the two schools on sheets of paper and put them in a hat, picking them out one by one.

“Oh, look, Karen, you won,” says the premier. “My turn! My turn!”

Or maybe it was a case of playing pin the school on the taxpayer — with just two schools and a province full of taxpayers.

No matter.

Let’s see. What about if we…

  • took the money we could have saved from the $45.5-million we wasted erecting the new McNeil-Casey educational edifices;
  • added in the savings if the government hadn’t chosen what Pickup calls a “more expensive” $17-million option to renovate two other schools in Liberal held ridings; and then
  • topped it all up with the savings we might have gained if Casey’s department hadn’t done such a “completely inadequate… late and disjointed” botch-up of the process to decide what to do with our already over-priced P3 schools…

… we might actually have some money available to spend on keeping teachers in their classrooms. As Karen Casey might say: What a ridiculous comment to make.


halifax-examinerA version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner. To read the latest column, please subscribe.

  1. To rub salt into the wound, in Bridgetown they are tearing down a beautiful, solidly constructed school, an architecturally interesting part of the town’s history. It is being replaced by an extraordinarily ugly thing. Many of us in the area are heartbroken about this decision. We believe, and would like to know if it is true, that the report on the present building showed no issues with its structural integrity, and that it might well have been preserved. It was built by the parents and community for the students they cared about. We need to value beautiful buildings. It is part of what makes life in Nova Scotia attractive.


  2. Thank you for this. Hmm. As ridiculous as Casey thinking we cannot see the moves, deflects and spin. As ridiculous as asking who’s really the boss in our province? The Auditor General can’t say it maybe but – it was BLATANT partisan gameWOmanship at expense and harm to others. Talk to some community members who were on Casey’s doorstep from Day One she was in office. Fact: Students from 2 schools whose parents and community members worked volunteer for Hub case for two years and met road block after roadblock and were closed -were funnelled into Casey’s new school. I did not want to believe that was all part of calculated plan. I voted for them. They would never do something like that ,would they ? I was soooo WRONG. It will be a nice school but that was never an issue — the ends do not justify the means. Not in this case. Not only were communities devastated, they were played –closure resulted in long bus commutes for 5 year olds,some parents keeping their children home a year — but also for two years children have been sardines in an overcrowded school—all to justify her ends. Now a building that was a school of 70 children and a community hub for preschool and seniors will probably be demolished– it is too big for the community to keep up. Wow. Just Wow. If Casey does not resign -and truly doubt that will happen –because it would mean admitting mistakes– let’s hope she retires ( she has probably already planned this ) because unless she can learn some new “tricks” ones that truly put children,families, communities — not politics first, she will not get re-elected. Not even by building a new school. You can do whatever you want when you think you can’t lose or have nothing to lose. But her legacy smells a bit like pollution from Northern Pulp on a bad day. Talk about an education in NS politics I’ve had and never wanted. Wow. If you ever write a book on this gov’t and needed proof of obstructionist tactics, I’ve got a box of email and letters going back 4 years. Hurts my head and heart but you can have them.


  3. Liberals new math, 7,8,9,10,26,28!


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